Why Major League Baseball should be afraid of Cleveland’s Carlos Santana

1It’s New Year’s Eve here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and I am excited about what’s to come in 2015 for your Cleveland Indians.

You should be too.

I know…I know…it’s easy to get caught up in all the movement around Major League baseball by all those large market teams, as well as those mid-to-small market teams right in our own American League Central. The Indians made a couple of moves to counteract some of the improvements made by those teams, but there certainly wasn’t the “splash” that many hope to see from a year-to-year basis.

Normally, I’m riding the crest of the wave with that  very sentiment.

This year, it just feels different. This year, it feels as though the Indians goals of creating a team that fills in the gaps with developed players is starting to come together.

Who did the Indians lose via free agency this year?

Jason Giambi.

Run that through your teeth a couple of times over. This is a team that won 85 games last year, and likely had more wins in the tank if they were healthier and if certain players performed just to their average ability, and they only lost a player that fans begged for the Indians to DFA all year long.

Last year, they lacked a middle-of-the-order bat, and could have used a bit of help from the right side as well, but in the end, that 2014 team had a shot to make the playoffs clear into September. The 2015 Cleveland Indians, without additions,  were already able to contend, even with the additions that other clubs made.

Immediately that argument gets hit with the “Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, overachieving starting rotation regression” argument.

Maybe.

But I do contend that if the best players of last year regress to perceived norms, and the players that struggled last year improve to their perceived norms, that the team will be better overall than last year.

I’m not going to get into the dynamics of that statement in one written piece. To give it the room that it needs to breathe, I would have to write a 20,000 word diatribe, and there isn’t a soul that wants to get put through that.

Instead, I’m going to delve into the whys over the course of the offseason, discussing player-by-player why we have yet to see the best of this current roster.

All things considered, injuries and unforeseen events can happen, and I’m a Cleveland fan, so they usually do. I’m not an idiot.

(I realize that’s an arguable point)

But if you just stare at the current incarnation of the Cleveland Indians in a game-to-game situation, it’s easy to see that if they just play the way they are supposed to, they could win 90 games. If there is a push from any one player in the rotation or on the field towards a Cy Young or MVP-like year, I could see two or three more wins added on to that. It gets really fun if you squint just enough to see multiple players make that type of push.

Of course, do you really have to squint that much?

I don’t think you do.

Let’s get today’s Corner rolling, so you all can get to your parties, drink your champagne, kiss your sweeties, and ponder the hidden brilliance that will be housed at Progressive Field in 2015. There’s reason to party here on the North Coast, and for your Cleveland Indians, it’s time to party like it’s…well…2015.

And let’s get this party started right, with the one player that, if he puts it all together, could flat out win the MVP award. Over the course of the past several years, I’ve had my doubts about him because of the inconsistencies, but I’ve always contended that the inconsistencies were often based on his defensive position.

That all changed last year, as he permanently placed a welcome mat at the position that would best accentuate his offensive skills.

I understand that you have consider “value by position” but that was all laid to waste after he moved to his “new” home at the end of May last year.

Of course, I’m speaking of Carlos Santana

Carlos Santana, 1B, Cleveland Indians: Think about how far we’ve come in 365 days with regards to Carlos Santana? One year ago on New Years’ Eve day, there were serious questions to where the catcher/DH/1B was going to play baseball for the Cleveland Indians. Yan Gomes had seemingly grabbed the starting catcher position from him during the final month of the 2013 season thanks to outstanding defense and surprisingly solid offense to go along with it. Chris Antonetti didn’t waste any time during last year’s offseason in acquiring a right fielder in David Murphy, which left Nick Swisher seemingly entrenched at first base.

It appeared as though Santana was going to be relegated to the regular DH role, while backing up both Swisher and Gomes when either needed a break at Catcher and First. It was seemed common knowledge that Santana wanted nothing to do with DH (as stated by Antonetti himself), and so much so, that he concocted a plan to get into the field that intrigued both the front office and Terry Francona.

He wanted to move back to third base.

The statement “move back to third base” is a stretch, since he hadn’t stood at third base in a professional baseball game, well, ever for the Indians’ organization, either at the big league level, or in the minors. As a matter of fact, he hadn’t played third since a one-game, minor league stretch in 2008. He only played in five games at third in 2007, and played his only lengthy period at the hot corner in 2006, to the tune of 38 games. In the end, Carlos Santana had 58 games of minor league, third base experience, including zero with the Indians’, and not a single game above High A.

So moving back could essentially have been called ‘learning how to play third base.’

Santana began playing third base for Leones del Escogido in the Dominican League in mid-December. By the end of Spring Training, Santana had somehow managed to become the Indians’ starting third baseman. It really is a credit to Santana’s work ethic that he could present himself well enough at an extremely challenging position to actually become the regular there. Sure, the flaws of learning a new position at the major league level were there, and perhaps combined with the lack of perceivable options at the position played a part in the ultimate decision (Lonnie Chisenhall had struggled up to that point, and there were no other real readily available minor leaguers beyond him other than Mike Aviles), but Santana worked hard, and earned the position.

The optimists out there thought that Santana was going to do something that nobody had really ever done, move successfully from catcher to third in the middle of their professional career, all while learning without a trip to the minors. The pessimists out there realized that moving to an easy position (if ever there was one in the Majors) is difficult, let alone to third base.

In the end, Santana only played 26 games at third and made six errors in 66 chances. For those counting at home, that’s a .909 fielding percentage. Without having to get into the metrics of it all, let’s just say that Francona saw the writing on the wall. He was struggling defensively, and in turn, it hurt him offensively to such a degree, that there were legitimate calls to bench him from the social media outlets.

It didn’t hurt that Chisenahall came out of the gates like a house of fire, while Nick Swisher struggled both with injury, and offensively, which made Francona’s job easy. Santana played his last day at third base on May 22, and became the team’s regular first baseman on May 23rd.

This is when it gets really fun to talk about baseball.

Santana became a really good first baseman, looked good defensively, and more important, began hitting the cover off the ball. Santana had a .274/.405/.506 slash at first, hit 20 of his 27 home runs there, and quieted many of the critics that were calling the former catcher a bust.

To be honest, Santana is never going to get rid of his critics because he’s simply not a traditional power hitter. That’s life, and that’s really okay.

Unfortunately for Santana, his immediate predecessor at the Catcher position is one of the most beloved players over the past 25 years in Cleveland, and for good reason. Victor Martinez was arguably the best offensive player for the Indians in the 2000’s, and was one of the best offensive players at the Catcher position in the major leagues when he left.

But consider this: In VMart’s eight seasons in Cleveland, he hit 103 home runs, drove in 518 RBI, had an .832 OPS, and was a 19.2 WAR player in 821 games. He walked 347 times, while only striking out 407 times. El Capitan’s OBP was an outstanding .369 during his Indians’ career. That’s pretty tidy.

But….

In Santana’s five years and 650 games, he has 98 homers, 336 RBI, an .809 OPS, and is a 17.3 WAR player. He’s walked 431 times, while striking out 497 times. His OBP is an outstanding .367 over his five year career. What did I say about Martinez? Tidy?

You probably see what I’m getting at here. While VMart is a beloved figure here in Cleveland, likely because he hit a very polished .297 and was the clear-cut leader of the team, Santana is often derided by a specific group of fans and media who just don’t see his overall value, which is truly is hampered because there really haven’t been any other consistent power hitters to surround him. Martinez was often considered an enhancement bat to the Travis Hafners and the Grady Sizemores of the world.

Sure, you can look at the Indians’ end result over the years and say, “This is a top 7 offense, so don’t give me this garbage about there being no offense around Carlos.” To that, I say rubbish (I’m old school). As EHC’s Rich Primo noted the other day,

“Watching games last year, I saw stretches where the pitching was there, but the team couldn’t get any runs on the board. No number is going to erase actual experience.”

They scored in splurges, but had stretches where the offense was mind-numbing.

The perpetual problem with Santana is that he just isn’t a traditional power hitter of old. But, if you plug Santana’s offense into the early 2000’s teams, it’s not dramatically different, by the numbers, than Victor Martinez. When you incorporate their identical OBP, you can see that there is equivalent value in many ways.

Sure, Carlos strikes out more, and there are instances where he leaves batters stranded because of it. But, overall, the numbers average out. I’m not big on that, but if you are going to use it against Carlos, you have to use it for him as well.

Their clutch-hitting stats even bear enough similarity, that you can’t really say with any certainty that Martinez’s value as an offensive catcher is all that more than Santana, while you certainly can debate the value of each.

I’ll leave that specific discussion to the Sabermetrics gurus out there (and hope that EHC’s Mike Hattery and/or John Grimm take a look at a comp at the two, which would be a pretty fun piece to read) to discuss the value of each, but for the sake of this article, I’m going to head back towards Santana.

(on a sidenote, Victor Martinez time here in Cleveland was pretty special to me. I loved him as a player and a person, and consider his goodbye to the city as real as it gets. His leaving via trade is akin to famous rock stars’ deaths at their peak to me. Like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, who many say are the standard bearers for being THE rock & roll frontman and lead guitarist not only of their time, but for generations to come, Victor Martinez was able to leave Cleveland without being forced to make a choice to stay or go. When he wept in front of his locker with his son, well, it doesn’t get any better than that. His career as a baseball player ended there for me, as the Detroit VMart is dead to me, but that conversation is for another day, and I refuse to engage in the discussion that they’re even the same player. They aren’t..they just aren’t.)

It’s time that this town gets excited for Carlos Santana, and starts embracing that he’s one of the best players in this current incarnation of the Indians. When you take into account where he could go offensively for this team in the immediate future, you should be downright giddy.

Santana is entering the prime of his baseball career, has found a position that he’s playing well, and just knows how to hit the baseball.  He’s has never really had the opportunity to play a position that he didn’t have to mentally anguish over on a daily basis.

This isn’t to take first base for granted, but according to most “sabermetrics defensive spectrums,” first base is the easiest position to field. You could equally argue that it’s one of the most important positions because of the amount of traffic that it sees on a daily basis. While there is an occasional quick-twitch play to be made, if you are an average defender who understands the routines of the position, you can be a good first baseman.

I will never look at Carlos Santana as a plus defender, but I am curious to see what he can do with a full spring training playing the position. While teams often put club-footed oafs there to hide their defensive deficiencies, I wouldn’t consider Santana a club-footed oaf. I would actually argue that he’s got the physical capabilities to play the position well. I’m monstrously curious as to why the Dodgers, and ultimately the Indians refused to put him at first to begin with.

For years I listened to a very tired argument: “His offensive metrics would make him an average first baseman, whereas he’s a special catcher.”

Funny…that level of discussion has more-or-less disappeared, hasn’t it.

Take a look at the first baseman across the league. While clearly, if he were the best catching candidate, his stats would stand out more, he clearly has the potential to be one of the best offensive first baseman in the league. Even if Santana has a down year in which he hits 18-20 homers and drives in 80 RBI, is there anyone else that can play first base and put up those numbers for the Tribe, without opening another hole in the lineup?

It’s an arguable point, but for this to happen, you’d have to believe that Swisher is going to be competent this year, or David Murphy, which would allow Brandon Moss to be more malleable position-wise. Santana’s downside would still be as good as it gets at first base, when you mix defense into the fray.

As a fan, I’ve always been curious to see what Santana could do during a full season of synergy, when everything seemed to be clicking, and that never seemed to happen when he was behind the plate, and certainly not at third base.

While I contend that he could have been a better catcher than people gave him credit for, I think it took every ounce of his being to be pretty average at best. He won’t have to put that kind of energy into first base.

When has Santana had the opportunity to walk into a regular season playing a position that he had some skill at without the mental aspect weighing him down?

Never?

Last season, he walked into Cleveland playing third base, a position that the Dodgers had moved him out of many years before because of his struggles. In the end, it was a worse-case scenario for Santana; the effort it took to learn the position clearly took away from his offense.

Prior to that, he entered every season as the primary catcher, and while he worked hard at the position from year-to-year, you can make a case that it really hurt his offense. There’s nothing habitual about catching, or handling a pitching staff. Every day is different, and most really good baseball coaches will tell you that there isn’t a more demanding position in the league. I’m going to write a piece later in the year that focuses on Santana’s struggles returning to the catcher position after time off, whether it be injury or offseason, which both take into account the the lack-of-habit that I firmly believe Santana has struggled with his entire career defensively.

Was his offense hindered? You make the call.

I Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS IBB BAbip
as C 325 1341 1100 152 265 73 1 43 156 9 6 215 228 .241 .364 .426 .790 9 .262
as 1B 207 872 722 108 195 44 2 39 122 4 4 141 173 .270 .389 .499 .887 10 .302
as 3B 26 113 93 9 12 3 0 2 7 2 0 20 26 .129 .283 .226 .509 1 .154
You have to wonder though: did playing third base help him figure out first base? He looked good defensively playing first last season, and while I’d stop short of calling him above average, he did have his moments in which you literally had to turn to a neighbor and say, “Was that Santana?” At the very least, he’s a serviceable first baseman going forward, and more importantly, this isn’t a position that he has to think about all that much.

My curiosity level is high at what he can do now that he’s likely entrenched there in the coming years. My contention has always been that when Santana can put forth his tremendous work ethic into a position that rewards habit-forming muscle movements the way the first base does, his offense will be the better for it.

His career statistics are unquestioned, and while some would argue it’s a small sample size, I’d argue just the opposite. The fact that they are so much better than as a first baseman, without ever actually putting in the type of preseason practice one should at a position leads me to believe that there is tremendous upside to his offensive numbers.

Certainly this can go both ways with regards to norms over time, but his offensive numbers always improved with the first base move. While there could be some regression to this in the coming year, The unknown of an entire spring training at first could be the counter to that argument.

Santana’s career average of .270 at first base, with 39 homers in 207 games lends itself, at least to the possibility of a traditional 30 homer, 100 RBI season.

And by the way, a healthy Brandon Moss is going to be hitting fifth. I know the argument about protection via the sabermetrics community, and actually believe it to an extent over time. I will equally contend that there are game situations that are unique on a day-to-day basis. It’s these situation that could lead to a few more grooved pitches for Santana hitting cleanup in front of Moss.

In other words, while I don’t think you’ll necessarily see a bump in production at seasons-end based on “protection,” I do think you could see better pitches overall, which could lead to better power numbers, while most of the rest of his averages remain the same.

That’s for another day, although it’s an interesting debate.

Let me be clear: I could care a less about the traditional numbers. I’m not going to take offense if he doesn’t look like a 90’s Indians’ power hitter in the mold of Manny Ramirez or Albert Belle, and I’m most certainly not going to take offense to those that say he isn’t as good as pure power hitters of the past, as others tend to do.

It’s actually kind of funny.

In the world of the social media networks, I watch daily as Santana fans go to war for his offensive statistics as though William Wallace were about to lead them into battle. I can hear it now:

Carlos: “Son’s of Cleveland, I am Carlos Santana.”
Carlos defender: “But Carlos is Seven Feet tall?”
Carlos: “He gets on base by the hundreds. And if he were here, he’d consume American League pitchers with fireballs from his eyes and bolts of lightning from his arse.”

Here’s the visual…just squint your eyes a bit, and put Carlos Santana’s head on top of Mel Gibson’s (bet you didn’t expect to picture that today, did you).

If that led you to a chuckle, then you pretty much understand how I feel about Carlos defenders. He’s good. I get it. If other don’t…who cares.

Carlos Santana is a unique player, and one of the top 30 or so players in baseball. He may be a top 20 player, but in the end, rankings like that really suck.

What I can say in all fairness is that I don’t think we’ve come close to seeing the best player that he can be. Here are some final Cleveland Indians/Carlos Santana thoughts for 2014:

  • Carlos Santana is entering his prime years of baseball
  • Carlos Santana is likely playing his best defensive position
  • Carlos Santana likely has a player that will protect him
  • Carlos Santana may have the best lineup from top to bottom that he’s ever had in his career, if it all plays out

What does that mean in the end for the Cleveland Indians?

While we’ve already witnessed William Wallace, let’s allow Maximus Decimus Meridius to take us into 2015:

Carlos, strength and honor, and at my signal…

“unleash hell…”

Happy New Year’s Everybody, and here’s to a fabulous 2015 for your families from our family here at EHC.

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One thought on “Why Major League Baseball should be afraid of Cleveland’s Carlos Santana

  1. Pingback: Everybody Hates Cleveland’s 2014 Players of the Year | Everybody Hates Cleveland

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